August 2, 2006

Wallenberg Remembered

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Raoul Wallenberg, rescuer of approximately 100,000 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, turns 94 on August 4. Whether he is still alive to celebrate his birthday remains a mystery.

Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, arrived in Hungary in July 1944 as first secretary to the Swedish legation in Budapest, at the behest of the American War Refugee Board’s representative in Stockholm. The Nazis had already deported or murdered 440,000 Jews before Wallenberg arrived; 230,000 remained.

Wallenberg’s main method of saving Jews was by issuing Swedish protective passports, ”Schutz-Passes,” which the Germans often honored – although he issued far more than his quota.

He also converted about 30 houses into ”Swedish houses” adorned with Swedish flags, which he declared to be Swedish territory. These houses, some of which he labelled ”The Swedish Library” and ”The Swedish Research Institute,” collectively protected – and hid – roughly 15,000 Jews.

In addition, Wallenberg bribed, cheated and lied to the Nazis to save countless more Jews. Thomas Veres, Wallenberg’s photographer, describes in an essay a typical example of Wallenberg’s ingenuity:

”Thousands of men were being loaded onto cattle cars [at the Josefvarosi train station to be deported to concentration camps]. Wallenberg had his black ledger out. ”All my people get in line here!” he called. ”All you need to do is show me your schutzpass!” He approached the line of ‘passengers.’ ”You, yes, I have your name here. Where is your paper?” The startled man emptied his pockets, looking for a paper he never had. He pulled out a letter. ”Fine. Next!” Wallenberg had pulled hundreds of men out of line when he sensed the Nazis losing patience. ”Now back to Budapest, all of you!” he said.

A week before the Russians arrived in Hungary, Wallenberg successfully threatened the commander-in-chief of the German troops in Hungary, General August Schmidthuber, with criminal prosecution after the war if he didn’t prevent Adolph Eichman’s planned liquidation of the Jewish ghetto.

”He was an absolutely fantastic man,” recalls Mrs. Agnes Adachi who worked with Wallenberg in Budapest in 1944 and ’45. She has since published a book about her experiences with Wallenberg.

Adachi remembers a night in December 1944 when Wallenberg walked into the Swedish legation and asked for volunteers who know how to swim. She and two others raised their hands, and Wallenberg drove them to the Danube River. The Nazis were tieing Jews into groups of three at the banks of the icy river and shooting the middle one, effectively killing all three with one bullet. Adachi and two others positioned themselves downstream, and time and again dived into th river to draw people out, saving 80 Jews in all.

After Russia conquered Hungary, Wallenberg left Budapest to meet the Russian victors at their local military headquarters in Debrecen on January 17, 1945. He never came back.

For many years, Russia claimed Wallenberg died of a heart attack in a Russian prison in 1947. In November 2000, Alexander Yakovlev, a Russian official investigating Wallenberg’s fate, said Wallenberg was shot in prison in 1947 (although the following year, Russia reverted to the heart attack story).

But released Russian prisoners have testified to seeing Wallenberg in Russian prisons as late as 1975. Other less concrete accounts indicate that Wallenberg was alive through the 80′s as well. Despite repeated requests by national leaders, Russia has still not released documents that would solve the Wallenberg mystery.

”We have a responsibility, a duty to ourselves, to our families, to the world and specially to him: to bring Raoul home,” said Baruch Tenembaum, founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation (IRWF). The IRWF has recently initiated a campaign calling for distinguished personalities to write letters urging Russian president Vladmir Putin to fully disclose all information pertaining to Wallenberg.

The group is also collecting 100,000 signatures of ordinary citizens (for the 100,000 lives Wallenberg saved) on a document calling for the resolution of Wallenberg’s fate, which the IRWF will present to President Putin and United Nations Secretary Kofi Annan.

The IRWF will celebrate Wallenberg’s 94th birthday at Central Park near the 5th Avenue and 67th Street entrance) on August 6 beginning at 2:00 p.m., with a variety of activities for children and families.